One of the internet’s greatest attributes is the way it levels out the playing fields. Social media grants an equal voice to everyone, regardless of their background or circumstances. Blogs enable anyone to self-publish their life stories or celebrate something they’re passionate about, without needing a publisher or sponsor, and online technology is constantly evolving to put power into the hands of the people.
For the many, not the few
Consider website design. In the early 2000s, this was a mysterious process driven by design agencies. They would listen to a client’s explanation of what was required, design something to their own tastes, and then invoice several thousand dollars. Requests were often waved away with airy talk of “challenges”, while most clients had little recourse to push back or complain. After all, building a website in HTML from scratch was incredibly complex, and HTML editors at the time (FrontPage, Dreamweaver, etc) weren’t especially intuitive. No wonder GeoCities and MySpace pages were so popular – they represented the closest many consumers could get to a self-designed online presence.
Then along came WordPress. It originated as a fork of the b2/cafelog blogging tool, written in PHP. Despite enjoying modest success, b2/cafelog was a resource for IT professionals who understood about LAMP stacks and open source architecture. From day one (specifically May 27, 2003), WordPress was intended to be universally accessible. It introduced the world to the concept of a content management system – a robust framework in which standard templates could be customized and published as standalone websites. It provided many people’s initiation to WYSIWYG editors, which have gone on to dominate everything from greeting card personalization through to graphic design.
How it works
WordPress enables users to modify existing templates without fundamentally affecting the source code or functionality. Consequently, the websites are robust since the level of achievable adjustment is limited to aesthetic factors like background images or positioning of individual elements. However, from a user’s perspective, it’s often impossible to identify a customized website as using identical architecture to another site featuring different visuals. Simpler templates are generally marketed as free, whereas more sophisticated ones command a fee.
However, the true genius of WordPress centers on the minimalism of its core architecture. A standard template occupies a compact footprint on a host server, making it quick to host and download. Rapid page loading times are a significant factor in search engine optimization, giving websites a head start in the battle for a respectable position in web ranking results. Even so, the developers always knew their customers would want to adapt and modify websites beyond simple blogging platforms. As a result, they devised the concept of plugins…
Plug and play
Plugins were in use long before WordPress popularized them, but this was the platform that gave them ubiquity. It was always the developers’ intention that the standard package should be as streamlined as possible, only to be expanded when necessary. However, for the first two releases, users had to alter the program code themselves. That was clearly impractical for non-technical consumers – less than a year later, the concept of plugins had been introduced.
Plugins are standalone pieces of code, designed to bolt onto the core architecture and perform one or more specific functions. They link to the core software at designated “hook” points, running custom code when triggered but remaining dormant at other times. This immediately simplified the process of adding more complex functionalities to the lightweight framework, while avoiding the risk of destabilizing core files.
Growth and refinement
When it was unveiled in 2004, the WordPress plugin directory contained fewer than 150 downloads. Some were very specific; one added a CAPTCHA field to comments forms to tackle the growing scourge of spam comments. Others had broader remits, including timeline generators and CSS compression. The concept of a pick-and-mix add-on directory proved hugely popular, and within a couple of years, developers were making considerable sums from devising slick plugins as solutions to specific problems. These days we take the choice of over 56,000 plugins for granted, but it was uncharted territory 15 years ago.
As the plugin directory swelled, so did WordPress’s influence. In 2006, the company only had five employees, but high-profile investors were beginning to pledge series A and B funding. This was the year of the first WordCamp, where users and developers gathered to discuss ideas and share insights; today, there are almost 800 annual WordCamps in over 60 countries. In 2008, a theme directory was created where users could develop and upload their own site templates to the overall pool. Today, there are several thousand free themes on offer.
However, the biggest growth involved WordPress’s user base. By 2011 it powered 12% of all live websites around the world. Today, that figure stands at over 29%. WP has grown from a platform used by amateur bloggers to the foundations for websites by BBC America, Sony Music, Microsoft and Reuters. Thousands of books have been published about how to get started or ways to boost web traffic, many penned by members of one of the most vibrant user communities ever seen.
WordPress has been endlessly refined and improved since day one. Spell-checking was introduced in 2007, custom menu management appeared in 2010, while audio and video support was added in 2013. 2018 will probably – in hindsight – become synonymous with the all-new Gutenberg editing environment, introducing a simpler aesthetic through the use of blocks. Each component on a page – galleries, lists, body copy, buttons – will become a standalone code block. And because each block is a stable chunk of code, future websites will combine greater adjustment with increased stability.
The introduction of Gutenberg represents the first part of a three-pronged plan to evolve towards full site customization, freeing consumers from the limitations of existing templates.
It demonstrates how WordPress continues to evolve, and why its history is still being written on a daily basis.
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